French animation film Genius Loci has garnered critical acclaim, won the hearts of viewers and film industry peers, secured international sales, and also managed to bag an Oscar nomination along the way. This unique short film draws on myriad aesthetic and musical inspirations to present a truly original world view that draws the viewer into a world of the senses.
Interview with Adrien Mérigeau, Director, Amaury Ovise, Producer (Kazak Productions), Corinne Destombes, Producer (Folimage), Nathalie Lebel, Distributor (L’Agence du court métrage)
TV France: Genius Loci is about sensations, senses, chaos, urbanity, meanderings. How did such a film get started?
Adrien Mérigeau: The film was born at the crossroads of several desires. The first was the desire to talk about the relationship between a person and their mind, to talk about that mystical place that ideas come from. A singer friend spoke to me about the state of “flow” she found herself in when she was performing and which guided her on stage. I really liked the idea of talking about creativity, research, and meanderings, in a spiritual manner.
My parents’ music was an important source of inspiration. Ninh Lê Quan and Martine Altenburger make contemporary music, free improvisation, with a particular sound, considering music and sounds as part of the same soundtrack, without distinctions. It’s music that requires a certain release and relaxation as you never know what will happen, and you cannot have any expectations. It’s like the wind in the forest, or the sound of cars in town. These noises become music through observation, and it was that transformation that interested me. I wanted to explore chaos for the same reason: as things overflow, they change, our view of them changes, it becomes a movement, a phenomenon, and that has a certain beauty. Anger, abandonment, overflow, these are phenomena that transform their subjects, turning people into animals, cars into bushes, glasses of water into rivers. I wanted to personify chaos in a subtle but identifiable way, like a dragon for example – something that can be terrifying but also magnificent, depending on who is looking at it. I also wanted to talk about an Irish friend who had so much poetry and solitude within him, and for whom the mind was above all a defense mechanism.
TV France: In addition to the subject, you have carefully developed a very particular aesthetic. How did you direct and produce Genius Loci?
Adrien Mérigeau: Finding the right visual approach and the right look for Genius Loci I took several years. I worked with Brecht Evens for a few months to find the right balance between narration and abstraction. I wanted to film to be absorbing, so that we could leave the narration and almost forget where we were, or simply be captivated by the images. I worked mainly with watercolors on paper, as the bubbly texture of the watercolors creates a sort of hypnosis, a bit like a Super8 film. It was important for every shot to be made with a unique idea in mind, almost without thinking about the shots that came before or after it. I wanted us to be really in the present moment, and for the eye to be permanently stimulated by constantly changing techniques and shot types, and for every shot to have its own poetic strength. That was, in any case, the idea, and Brecht was heavily involved, as every page of his comic books is full of very powerful tips, ideas and compositions. I wanted to leave the creative tools of the film within the images – the marks of sticky tape, the cross marks on the pages, the page numbers, to retain that artisanal feel, that home-made style, almost intimate, like a sketchbook.
Amaury Ovise: The main financing came from the French National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image (CNC), the Rhône-Alpes Region and France 3. Folimage, our co-producer, made up the rest of the funding and supported Adrien’s work.
Corinne Destombes: We were contacted by Amaury Ovise, who thought it might be good if Adrien Mérigeau came to meet us in our studio in Valence. That allowed him to be fueled by exchanges with other directors present who shared their experiences.
We were convinced of Adrien’s talent and charmed by this graphic adventure, the strange originality of which became evident over several weeks, so we decided to help fund the film by investing in a support fund, which gave us the status of co-producer.
The creative team that worked with Adrien, as well as the students from French animation schools who came to reinforce the teams (Emca, La Poudrière, l’Atelier de Sèvres and Pivaut), are all very proud to have participated in the film.
And Folimage is delighted to be associated with such an unusual and original film – which has ultimately led us to the Oscars!
TV France: France 3 pre-purchased Genius Loci. That’s an interesting choice for a big French public channel that is not used to acquiring animation.
Amaury Ovise: France 3 made their position very clear very quickly. Their proposition was strong, even radical. In France, there is a financing system for short films that allows for demanding proposals. In fact, Adrien had made an incredible first short called Old Fangs, which gained a lot of attention, and had collaborated on feature-length films by Tom Moore (The Secret of Kells, Song Of the Sea).
TV France: In your opinion, what put the film in the running for an Oscar?
Amaury Ovise: Firstly, the creator’s vision and talent. Adrien has something unique. Genius Loci. Many big names in animation (Dudok de Wit, Renner, Yamamura) appreciated the film’s freedom of style, its sensitivity. Short animated films offer an extraordinary space for expression.
Genius Loci did not win the Oscar, but being among the five nominees is already a huge victory for French and European animation. It has real reach across the Atlantic. This means that there is a taste for demanding films with a strong creative vision. We have recently noticed the growing influence of European animation on the American studios, whose offer is often more formatted and studied.
That the Oscars recognized this type of film is great news both for cinema and for animation.
What people like about Genius Loci is also what it stands for: a strong visual culture (Klee and German impressionism are among Adrien’s influences) and the extraordinary quality of European animation schools.
TV France: Beyond these prizes and honors, you have also received recognition from your peers, in particular from Japanese directors…
Adrien Mérigeau: It was a huge honor to receive a message from Koji Yamamura, whose work I admire immensely. I still feel I am far from achieving the maturity and power of his films but it was very encouraging to get a message from him.
TV France: In terms of distribution, Genius Loci is already on big and small screens around the world.
Nathalie Lebel: Other than the pre-purchase by France 3, the first sales took place following the film’s selection for the Berlin Film Festival, the Festival of Clermont-Ferrand, and at Annecy. These are all important meet-ups for short film buyers, in particular the “historic” broadcasters (Telefonica Movistar, Canal+ Pologne, Ale Kino) who have long applied an acquisitions policy that involves buying only the best films, in particular animation. In addition to TV rights, we also saw non-linear sales – TVOD, SVOD and Inflight, both in France and internationally. And, following the Oscar nomination, the film was sold to Shorts International as part of their “The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2021” program that brings together all the nominated films, distributed for all types of rights, mainly in cinemas and with a large exposure in American cinemas (both physical and virtual), and also across the world.
TV France: Why did you choose to distribute Genius Loci? What made you want to take this animated short film to an international audience?
Nathalie Lebel: Genius Loci is a magnificent animation film that subtly mixes different animation techniques – painting, ink, and color and black and white. It is a visual and cerebral film that gradually draws you in. It is a sensitive and sensory film about the internal struggle of a queen who seems to be fleeing a kind of chaos that she can never really escape and also “waiting for a sign”. There are some beautiful moments where the text appears on the screen, like silent disembodied voices. Genius Loci is carefully done and elegant. The choice of voices and the care taken with sound and music also bring a lot to the film.
Genius Loci is a wonderful flag-bearer for the excellence of French animation on the international stage, and it is obviously very motivating to present that to all different types of broadcasters. The public and festival crowds got it right throughout 2020, and that helped us make our way to the Oscars.
TV France: Animation for adults presents as many advantages as it does difficulties, generally speaking.
Nathalie Lebel: Animation for adults has a niche viewership, but one that is present and demanding. It is hard to compare it to animation for youngsters, which is very established in France and abroad and which has an ever greater viewership. Animation for adults can tackle any subject all the while using animation and linguistic techniques and complex expressions, and creating a world in which imagination, reality, humor, fantasy, violence and the fantastical can co-exist.
On TV, unlike youth animation which has its established position, a large viewership and is constantly evolving, animation for adults is treated like a short drama or documentary film, with the same programming constraints in terms of time slot, themes and duration. Digital platforms change everything as they can offer specific slots for animation and have much greater liberty in terms of programming and editorial choices.
Adrien Mérigeau: In terms of writing and directing, I don’t really see the difference between animation for adults and the rest. The language is different, but the essence and techniques are identical.
Amaury Ovise: Only challenges.
TV France: Do you have any other communal projects in the works?
Amaury Ovise: Adrien is making a short film for an American broadcaster. We are currently thinking about another project together.